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With Dirt And A Vision, Palestinian Architects Break The Mold

Jul 3, 2014
Originally published on July 3, 2014 8:31 am

The city of Jericho sits in the hot, flat Jordan Valley down the hill from Jerusalem. Jericho has bragging rights as one of the oldest towns on Earth. But one of its newest homes looks like it might have arrived from outer space.

Ahmad Daoud hired a firm of young Palestinian architects to build this house. Like Jericho's original homes, it is built of dirt. This one has a contemporary twist, though: It's constructed with earth compacted in bags that are then stacked and plastered over.

Daoud loves the domed rooms, the nod to the past and the environmental advantages.

"It's an environmentally friendly house," he says. "I can tear it down and nothing will remain. In the summer, I don't need air conditioning, and in the winter, I don't need heat."

Amid the dust, palms and the square, concrete houses of Jericho, Daoud's home stands out. Daoud says everybody has something to say about it.

"A lot of neighbors say it's nice to look at but not to live in," he says.

Some neighbors have asked him whether it's a house or some kind of tourist attraction. Others say he'll never sell it, or wonder how he could add a floor for his children — a common Palestinian practice — on top of domes.

Despite Jericho's history, mud has fallen out of fashion. Even some of the builders didn't think building from mud would work, says Lina Saleh, one of the architects.

"Maybe in their minds it should be concrete and steel," she says.

Saleh is part of ShamsArd, a small, young Palestinian architecture firm that has designed several buildings constructed of dirt. Translated from Arabic, ShamsArd means "sun and earth." Saleh studied architecture at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and then joined a firm in Ramallah. Most of the clients were wealthy, and the materials they chose bothered her.

"We [imported] them from anywhere, even from Israel," she says.

Danna Massad, another ShamsArd partner, says they wanted to find ways to build that empowered Palestinians locally.

"That empower ourselves as a community, that empower our struggle as well, and that are good for environment," she says.

Half the world's population lives, works, worships or keeps animals in structures built of earth, says University of California, Berkeley professor Ronald Rael. Rael, who has written a book surveying earth architecture worldwide, says revivals of earth buildings catch on best when they fit in with local values — including style, structure and, yes, building materials.

"If a community wants to live in a contemporary society, that building material needs to be shaped in a way that it's reflective of the society," he says.

ShamsArd began as an experiment in design. In 2012, before the architects drew the firm's first building, they made furniture from trash: stools built from recovered steel rebar with seats of woven bike inner tubes, lampshades from loofa, cardboard sofas.

They held a show locally, but weren't even sure their families would show up. Surprisingly, Saleh says, almost everything sold. She read that as a changing social metric.

"It was like a small test. Do you really accept [putting] trash in your house? And people liked it," she says.

That helped boost confidence in the young architects' techniques and beliefs. And confidence is really what this firm is trying to build.

Helping the environment and reviving traditional practices are important, Massad and Saleh say. But raised in an economy dependent on international aid — with its political strings — and limited by Israeli restrictions, they say their true challenge is to prove that they can earn a living on their own terms.

Massad says this is a very big deal, particularly to young Palestinian professionals.

"I think the Palestinian society is oversaturated with international aid," she says. "Of course, we're not the only example of a local business that refuses any kind of aid, but we can see how excited people get ... to see how you can actually do something without being dependent."

ShamsArd has been hired by nonprofits that do depend on donor assistance, so it's not entirely removed from the aid economy. The team has finished five buildings and is currently designing a restaurant and another private home.

Massad and Saleh say they will know they're successful when other local Palestinian architects start competing with them.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Palestinian city of Jericho sits on a sweltering, dusty plain. And that setting has inspired a local architecture firm to work with native materials like mud and plaster - inexpensive supplies that keep out the heat. At NPR, we've been highlighting entrepreneurs doing business with social benefits. Here's our Mideast correspondent, Emily Harris.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The city of Jericho sits in the hot, flat Jordan Valley, down the hill from Jerusalem. Jericho has bragging rights as one of the oldest towns on earth. But one of its newest homes looks like it might have arrived from outer space.

(WATER RUNNING)

HARRIS: Owner Ahmad Daoud rinses cups in his round, domed kitchen, just off his round, domed living room, down the hall from his round, domed bedroom. This house is built of dirt - earth compacted in bags, stacked up, and plastered over. Daoud loves living here.

AHMAD DAOUD: (Through translator) It's an environmentally friendly house. I can tear it down and nothing will remain. In the summer, I don't need air conditioning. In the winter, I don't need heat.

HARRIS: Inside and out, the walls are painted bright white. In the dust, palms and square concrete homes of Jericho, it stands out. Daoud says plenty of people have plenty to say about his house.

DAOUD: (Through translator) A lot of neighbors say it's nice to look at, but not to live in. Others asked me, is this actually a house? You'll never sell it. Some people don't like the idea it's built of mud.

HARRIS: Mud was the building material in Jericho for thousands of years. That connection to tradition attracted him. But mud has fallen out of fashion, says Lina Saleh, one of the architects.

LINA SALEH: At first, we have to convince the laborers and the contractors that this is actually a house. And it can work. And it can, like, stand by itself - maybe because they haven't seen for a long time, like, examples like this. And in their minds, it should be concrete and steel.

HARRIS: Saleh is part of ShamsArd, a small, young, Palestinian architecture firm that has designed several of these types of projects constructed from dirt. The name means sun and earth. Saleh helped start the company when conventional design got frustrating.

SALEH: People are interested in, like, really expensive materials where we import them from, like, anywhere - even from Israel. I guess this is the point where I felt it's not why I studied architecture.

HARRIS: Earth architecture expert and University of California, Berkeley professor Ronald Rael says half the world's population lives, works, worships, or keeps animals in structures built of dirt. He says local revivals of earth buildings catch on best when they fit in with local values.

RONALD RAEL: I think that it has to respond to the culture. If a community wants to live in a contemporary society, that building material needs to be shaped in a way that it's reflective of the society.

HARRIS: A back room in the small office Palestinian architect Saleh shares with her partners is stuffed with what looks like garbage - scrap metal, broken, wooden furniture. In 2012, before the architects drew the firm's first building, they designed furniture from trash and held a show for local people to have a look - stools built from recovered rebar, with seats of woven bike inner tubes, lampshades from loofah, cardboard sofas. Surprisingly, Saleh says, almost everything sold.

SALEH: It was like a small testing for the people - do you really accept to put trash in your houses? And people like it. And I guess this, like, gave us more confidence in our work and in our beliefs.

HARRIS: And confidence, she says, is really what this firm is trying to build. Helping the environment and reviving traditional practices are central goals. But raised in an economy dependent on international aid, with its political strings, and limited by Israeli restrictions, Saleh and partner Danna Masad say their true challenge is to prove to themselves and others that they can earn a living on their own terms.

DANNA MASAD: We're trying to be independent with the materials that we're using. We're trying to be independent from outside influence, as far as agenda. And so it makes sense that we would want to be independent financially, as well.

HARRIS: ShamsArd has finished five buildings and now has been hired to design a restaurant and another private home. The partners say they'll know they're successful when other local architects start competing to construct buildings out of earth. Emily Harris. NPR News, Jerusalem.

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.